Saturday, 14 November 2009


Petula meeting fans on a recent visit to Paris

Petula Clark has been around a long time, and for as long as I can remember, she’s been a part of my musical life. She started singing when she was around 5 or 6 at local talent shows, and had her first professional engagement singing with a band at the age of 7 in the escalator hall of Benthalls department store in London. She was “discovered” by the BBC in 1942, around the time of her 10th birthday, and went on to become a child star on the radio and in Rank Organisation films throughout the 40s, and as a teenager in the 50s.

When the bottom fell out of the British film business in the 1950s because television and American films between them had made them redundant, Petula concentrated on her singing career. She became a tv and radio star and indeed had a few hit records. But she had problems shaking off the “little girl” image she had picked up during the war and in the years just after. Older people wanted her to stay “Our Pet”, because the idea that she was growing up also signalled the approach of middle age for them. The teenagers of the 1950s wanted American Rock and Roll, not British copies. As she said herself, she was nowhere. But Petula was a trooper and she kept on singing and touring and waiting for something to happen........

Then one night in 1957 she was engaged to sing at the Paris Olympia on bill of European talent to mark the launch of a new Europe-wide music radio station. She had a stinking cold and could barely speak a word and yet she went out on stage, sang three songs, badly (according to her account of the evening), and in English, although she did attempt a “bonsoir”. Somehow (Petula reckons she will never understand why) she brought the house down. The Parisians loved the little English girl with her strange idea of what to wear and her typically British nasal cold. The next day the Paris newspapers were full of “La petite anglaise”, disregarding the big French stars who had topped the bill.

She was dragged somewhat unwillingly to the offices of Disques Vogue, a French recording company and, long story short, there she met a man, Claude Wolffe, who was to become her manager, and later husband. She hadn’t wanted to have a career in France but Claude persuaded her otherwise. She moved in with him and started to learn French. In France, with none of the baggage of childhood stardom, she was able to be the pop singer she longed to be, and not only in France but all over the French speaking nations of the world, topping the charts in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, African countries and the Middle East too. Her fame spread to other Continental countries and soon she was recording in Spanish, German and Italian as well. Although she continued to have hits like ‘Sailor’, ‘Romeo’ and ‘My Friend the Sea’ in Britain, the main thrust of her work was in French. She even, on a couple of occasions, entered the British charts with French songs.

But soon that was to change too. In 1964, Tony Hatch, who, as her A&R man, was responsible for her recordings, was writing a song based on his first visit to New York. He thought it would be suitable for the Drifters. But on a visit to Paris to rehearse some new French songs (none of which she liked), he played her the music for it. She loved it and told him she wanted some lyrics. Three weeks later “Downtown” hit the charts in the UK and America, and another new career opened up for Britain's 'Pet' and France's 'Petite Anglaise'. Riding on the so-called “British pop invasion” of the 60s, Petula Clark became a huge success in America too with hit after hit in the charts both there and all over the English speaking world, including back home in the UK.

Of course eventually, as they do, the stream of hits dried up, but Pet carried on working. Las Vegas, Hollywood, and in time, the West End and Broadway made her a bigger and bigger star throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Now in what some might call semi retirement in Geneva (and most other people would call a hectic schedule), Petula continues to tour all over the world with her concert act which includes some of the old hits and new songs too. She works tirelessly for charities and as a UN ambassador. She continues to record and write, and she holds records for the longest chart career with new material, having charted first in 1954 and most recently in the UK with “Petula Clark, Then and Now” in 2008, but having an even more recent entry (2009) in the Belgian chart.

I was lucky enough to meet this amazing woman some years ago when she was touring. (A mate of mine is one of her record producers and writers.) She is as charming and lovely as her songs. An international star with an ‘ordinariness’ you would find hard to believe, a crisp dry and self deprecating sense of humour and the ability to make you think that the conversation you are having with her is all about you, and not at all about her.

In Edinburgh a few years ago, at the Festival Theatre, she invited me to step up and sing a bit of “Downtown” with her. I suppose it’s a bit like singing ‘New York, New York’ with Sinatra, or ‘Imagine’ with John Lennon. An awesome experience that I’ll never forget.

The world is a better place for having Petula Clark and her music in it. November 15 is her birthday. Happy birthday or bon anniversaire, Petula. May you have many, many more.

Petula at a recent concert.....


  1. Thank you for a lovely tribute tris, I'll tell Pet next time I see her. Bitch never comes tae Leith but next time I'm in Geneva...

  2. LOL Sophia. I'm sure if you asked nicely, specially if you mentioned the Spook of Leith, she'd be there at the double.

    Still Geneva is nice at any time of the year.....

  3. Happy Birthday Pet.

    Tris sang New York New York with Pet. I was in the audience and I mind the woman (in her 40s) said, (That lad has just murdered that song)

    No my words, I though you were brill!!! :)

  4. Aye Spook, you were so drunk that 'Downtown' sounded like 'New York, New York', that woman in her 40s was only 16 and you thought I sounded great.... that's some way to be drunk!

    You're only jealous coz she heard you singing along in the audience and picked ME to sing with her. She said to me afterwards "See that Spooky... He cound't carry a tune in a bucket" (or whatever they call a bucket in Geneva!!

  5. Great stuff Tris, she really is multi-talented and I never knew she was that age (if you will forgive me saying so)she sure don't look it.

  6. Indeed Munguin.

  7. Yep Acheronhades:

    There's not much our Pet can't do when it comes to showbiz, and yeah, she pretty hot for a woman of that age, and she jumps about a bit on stage too.... I'd like a pint of whatever she's on....

  8. Never mind a pint Tris make it a gallon.

  9. She never comes to Dundee either Sophia I wonder why? I know she has been to Aberdeen and Perth, must be the crap acoustics in the Caird Hall, it can't be because she thinks she would not be able to fill it.

  10. I don't think there are any suitable concert halls in Dundee Munguin. Perth is fantastic, brilliant new theatre, and the acoustics are great. Aberdeen has the Kings and Music Hall.

    I just don't think that the Caird Hall is on most promoter's lists. The acoustics are terrible. All the other theatres are too small.

  11. Aye Tris but Pet said to me that I had a bigger packet.

    Ah dinna ken what she meant by that but i will take her word for it. :)

  12. It was your POCKET that was bigger you silly Edinburgh rock. Remember, that was when you couldn't reach to the bottom of it to get your money out to pay for the drinks.... and you left me with the bill....

    You getting deaf as well as tone deaf Spooky?

  13. Danny, 1st Earl of the OzarksNovember 15, 2009 5:41 pm

    And Happy Birthday to Pet from this side of the pond.

    The world is a poorer place that the Pet and Tris duet of "Downtown" has never been recorded.

  14. Your Nobilityness:

    You will doubtless know that the sound desk records concerts, so, somewhere in the archives there is a small cassette with just that piece of musical history on it.

    I suggested to her afterwards backstage that she might like me to accompany her on the rest of the tour... a generous offer I thought, but, unfortunately at that precise moment she decided that she needed to do something about her hair (whether it needed it or not)... and the moment passed.

    Ah well, she seems, somehow, to have done OK without me.....

  15. Danny, 1st Earl of the OzarksNovember 15, 2009 6:24 pm

    And someday the music archivists will discover and treasure that piece of musical history.

    But yes, her career did go on without you. And to be realistic Tris, have you noticed the rather "casual" coiffure that Pet sports these days? Did you not think it a wee bit odd that it rquired attention.....and, as you note, at that PRECISE moment?....LOL.

  16. Hum... I did think it a little odd... after 20 years of her hair being a mess that she suddenly chose that moment to get a comb out...